Friday, February 28, 2014

Lebu Cha in Kolkata

Walking down Park Street - Kolkata, this afternoon, I couldn't resist that steaming cup of Lebu Cha at one of the street tea vendors (there's one almost every 200 meters selling this version of the Lemon Tea).

On the buzzing footpath of Park Street, the vendor had the whole set up on a makeshift counter - a Kettle with hot tea on what looked like a portable stove, wedges of lemon and little shot glasses sized paper cups.

A dash of lemon, a hint of rock salt and steaming hot tea poured from the kettle.. the magic potion was ready!
At Rs 5 a cup, this drink can refresh you for the next couple of hours .. and then you crave for your  next cup.. :-) Sip On!

The Lebu Cha set up
Mixing up the perfect cup
Lebu Cha!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Of Cattle, Cow Dung and a Cold Bucket of Water

The travel itch struck us again, after all it had been 2 whole months since we had gotten away - so we decided a quick weekend getaway to Bhandardhara, Maharashtra (180 kms from Mumbai).

After whizzing on the Mumbai Nasik Expressway (NH3, multi lane, smooth drive), we cut off at the Ghoti Toll to the Nagpur-Aurangabad-Mumbai Highway (bumpy, single lane but with great countryside views)!

Enjoying the countryside on this route (even better in monsoon, but not bad in winters either), we crossed a huge 'maidan' (ground) with what looked like a gzillion people and wait.. also cattle!

It was a cattle fair - people from the neighbouring villages had gathered to buy or sell cattle. Truckloads of cattle (literally) of all sizes, breed and color were offloaded on this ground. People seemed to have camped up there for a couple of days. To see the sheer number of cattle there was a 'moo-ing' experience!

Cattle of all breed & sizes made the Cattle Fair a colorful sight!

People seemed to have camped up at the Cattle Fair for some days
Cattle being brought in, in trucks & tempos from neighboring villages

A line of shops sold various adornments for cattle

Remembering we had a destination to hit, we drove further on.. A few kilometres ahead - on a barren landscape in the backdrop of a scarcely green hill - was a little hut.

On the outskirts of Ghoti village, this mud hut had cattle & poultry around it, chillies & beans laid out to dry, two not-so-lush trees providing shade from the scorching sun and the lady of the house busy in the courtyard. The brown barren beauty of the hut compelled us to halt..

The little mud hut

The lady must've been in her 60's. Sitting outside her hut, she was flattening out cow-dung into discs so it could be used for cooking (and other) fires... Bio energy at its best - done in most village homes in India.

The old lady making cow-dung cakes and leaving them out to dry

'Aamhi hya govri baghu shakto ka?', I asked her ('Do you mind if we see the cow dung cakes that you are laying out?')

She was thrilled to host us.. She even taught our 4 year old daughter to make cow-dung cakes in 3 easy steps: mix cow-dung with straw, flatten it into cakes by hand and leave the cow-dung cakes in the sun to dry.

Our daughter trying her hand at making cow-dung cakes under able supervision

The cow-dung by the way has other utilities too apart from bio fuel - wet cow dung is spread across the walls and floors of village huts which dries up to make solid walls & floors. It is also used as agricultural manure.

The lady then took us to a calf tied around the tree outside her hut and we fed it some hay.

After the little 'activity class' (that's what our daughter thought it was), the lady took our daughter near the hut and washed her hands off a bucket of water. I later realised how generous that was since all the water she had in her house were 2-3 bucketfuls (perhaps from a water pump or a stream some distance away).

Washing the cow dung off their hands

She was kind enough to take us inside her hut - 8 sq mtrs, housed 6 family members. She introduced us to her family and offered us a kind of khichdi (steamed rice with pulses) made on her indigenous 'choola' (cooking stove).

Their humble home - with meals cooked on the indigenous 'choola'

Much as we were tempted, we politely refused, not wanting to 'eat into' the family's share of lunch.

We thanked her for her courtesy and bid the family good bye, glad to have experienced some part of their life. What seemed brown & barren to us was perhaps gold for them!

With that, we drove ahead to Bhandardhara. But indeed as the cliche goes - the journey was as interesting as the destination..!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Top 5 Street Food Stuff in Thailand - that your tastebuds deserve!

One of the many reasons I love Thailand is the street food! Other reasons being - the culture, their beach destinations, the ‘variety’ of holidaying that can be done there from beach-jungle-culture-urban-shopping-etc. But more on that later… this post is about why I love the street food .. Welcome to the gastronomic journey!

In Thailand (as in most places in the world), the best food is out there on carts & little restaurants by the roadside – freshly prepared, delicious and rich in local flavours & fragrances. Here’s my list of top 5 favorite street food stuff – you shouldn't leave Thailand without trying one of these:

(Also check out top 'Veggie Treats' and 'Kids will Love' at the end of the post).

1.       Banana Pancakes:

Chopped Bananas stuffed in crepes and fried on butter with a topping of maple syrup & condensed milk – cut into little bite sized pieces. In most touristy towns of Thailand (esp the beach destinations), you will find a Banana Pancake cart every 300 meters. This yummy treat can be eaten as a desert or just as an evening snack… and is a great hit with children of all ages (from age 3 to 70)! Try out the basic version or the variations (chocolate, peanut butter, cinnamon, strawberries, pineapple, egg cheese and a zillion more). Don’t miss to watch how they make it – it’s as appetizing as the snack itself!

The making of a Banana Pancake

2.       Stuffed fish in Sweet & Sour Sauce:
Available at most street joints that serve meals, this dish is a complete meal by itself. Fresh fish, with a variety of stuffing cooked in sweet & sour sauce. Usually served with some salad or the ‘not so thai’ fries/ wedges..  

Stuffed Fish

3.       Fish Cutlets:
These melt in the mouth Fish patties are, well, just melt in the mouth stuff! Minced fish deep fried into little patties served with hot & sweet thai sauce. A sinfully yummy way to eat fish in Thailand. (often has chopped chillies as well – so for kids, you may want to tell the cook to go easy on the chillies).

Deep Fried, sinfully yummy Fish Cutlets

4.       Going Green & Red:
How can I write about Thai street food and not mention the green and red curries! Found just about anywhere in Thailand on little roadside restaurants, these are meals you’ll remember even after you get home! Made in chicken, prawns or fish, the green or red thai curries are served with steamed white rice (plain or sticky rice). The green is spicier than the red curry (kids usually love the red curry). For vegetarians, the vegetable green/ red curries taste great too. (For Vegetarians as per Indian definition: this is one of the best meal option for in Thailand. Make sure you tell the cook what counts as vegetarian for you :-) - that fish & eggs don’t!).

The iconic Thai Green & Red Curries with rice

5.       Crabs Cakes:
Made from minced crab meat and deep fried, these crab cakes are the most hassle free way to eat crab (though my favorite is still to find my way thru crab shells to pull out the meat J). This is not as easily found as the other 4 above – but fairly common and absolutely delicious – served with the iconic thai hot & sweet sauce.

Crab Cakes

Top Veggie Treats:

For the vegetarians reading this, here's my list of top 5 veggies treats on the streets of Thailand:

- Tofu Cakes (Similar to Crab Cakes)
- Papaya Salad
- Tofu Spring Rolls (fried)
- Thai Veg Green and Red Curry with rice
- Banana Pancakes

Kids will love:

- Banana Pancakes (of course!), try flavours like nuttella/ chocolate/ caramel/ etc
- Fish Cutlets (minus the chillies)
- Crab Cakes or Tofu Cakes

Gosh, how I want to hop onto a flight right now to Thailand to get a bite of these! What’s your favorite street food there?

Friday, February 7, 2014

Faces of Nepal

I have always thought of Nepal as a beautiful country! Stunning mountains, heritage temples, bustling streets, culturally rich and humble, thrifty, warm people.

With culture very similar to that in parts of India, religions similar to those followed in India and even script (though not language) similar to that in India - I could totally ‘relate’ to Nepal and instantly felt at home when we visited Kathmandu in 2011 with our then 1 year old daughter.

But as in most countries, it is the people of Kathmandu that formed an important highlight of our visit – they were a humble, thrifty & warm lot. Here is a photo essay of pictures taken in and around Hanumandhoka Darbar Square, Kathmandu - a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Flower vendors at the Darbar Square

Cycle Rickshaw pullers waiting for passengers
I loved this lady selling neckpieces - her smile & enthusiasm was infectious as she happily posed for a photo

This tea vendor diligently made us a piping hot cup of tea

This was a classic 'old meets new' scene - a traditionally dressed woman selling confectionery in a cane basket in branded jars striking a conversation on her cellphone

Our friendly guide at the 'Kumari Bahal'

A soldier on guard near the Darbar Square

A vendor in a market selling spices & dry fish

This, well, is not the face of Nepal - but loved the buzz in the air in Kathmandu on the day of the Bryan Adams concert. As a HUGE fan, I was thrilled that he was staying at our hotel and I got a chance to say hello to him!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

5 Ways to Travel like a Local

When they say 'travel like a local' - what do they exactly mean and why should one really travel like a local ...  

Here's how and why we (the husband, our daughter and I) try to get a 'local flavor' during all our travels.

The WHY is simple -

  • Traveling like a local gets you as close as you can to the local culture, mannerisms and way of life. 
  • Especially when you are traveling with kids, it helps you give your kids a flavor of how life is outside their home city and you wont believe how much fun they have in doing this. 
  • And of course the larger mass of tourists aren’t doing this, so at least here - you won't be one amongst a herd of tourists trying to get a selfie in front of a monument or in a queue to buy audio guides.

And now that I've mentioned the WHY, here's my take on the 'HOW':

5 ways to get a 'Local Experience' when you travel:

1.       Stay at a Home-stay

Home stays are the best way to see and perhaps even live a ‘day in the life’ of a local. Most often serve you food cooked in the home kitchen by the home owners or their domestic help – that’s food as authentic as it can get. 
You can strike a conversation with the home owner’s family (if they are open to – which they are in most cases) and their domestic help – and get insights into life in that place. 
If you are traveling with infants and have special food needs, home stays often give you the flexibility to get meals of your choice or warm up that glass of milk yourself in the kitchen.

The only caveat here is to look for home stays that are truly home stays (preferably with owners living in or around that house). Hotels camouflaged as home stays (and there are plenty) defeat the purpose. 

The cosy & tastefully done up living room of Kemal & Barbara's Pension (Guesthouse) - our home for a week in Goreme, Turkey
A traditional homestay we stayed at in Bekal, North Kerala, India

2.       Visit a Local Vegetable or Fish Market

Take time out to visit a local (non-touristy) vegetable market, fish market or maybe a weekend market. There is nothing touristy about it & you wont really get souvenirs here – but its fun to see locals buying (and haggling) fish or fresh produce of vegetable & fruits. We enjoy a weekend market the most – everything from vegetables to clothes to dairy products & toiletries sold in bulk – it’s a colorful feast for your eyes.  At a weekend market in Selcuk, Turkey, our daughter enjoyed seeing a variety of fish or fruits (that she hadn’t seen back home) while we struck up a conversation with local vendors.

A local market in Hanoi
A local fish market in Selcuk, Turkey

A lady selling spices & dry fish at a market near Darbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal

3.       Eat at a Local Restaurant

The best way to try authentic local food in any place you travel to is to eat where there are no tourists and only locals eating. The food at these places is the most authentic and usually the tastiest (usually.. ;-)). The only caveat here is that - unlike touristy restaurants where the staff is often adept in some form English – staff in these local restaurants often don’t speak English (or the commonly used Hindi when traveling in India).
In this case, it helps to look up translations of the food menu on the internet (honestly this exercise is also fun). Once at small local restaurant in one of the by-lanes in Hong Kong, the staff spoke only Cantonese. Fortunately, as a home work, we had carried a handwritten list given by a friend containing 20 different local dishes written in Cantonese and their English equivalent – this way, we would just point out to what we wanted (and we knew what that meant in English).

A local restaurant serving Shawarmas & Snacks on a highway between Ajman & Umm Al Quwain, UAE

Fajau-Pav (Red beans cooked in coconut gravy & bread): popular as lunch with locals at this Goan eatery in Mulgaon - a village near Thivim in North Goa
Rice paper sheets being made for the vietnamese rolls at a street joint off Hanoi, Vietnam
A road side eatery serving meals to locals near Khajjiar in Himachal, India

4.       Travel by the most local transport

Enjoy a ride in a transport that locals use to travel. Mass transport (trains, trams, buses) are even better than individual transport like tuk-tuks/ auto-rickshaws  – as this way, not only do you experience traveling the local way, but often also get a chance to strike a conversation with locals on their daily commute. Kids also enjoy that ride in the tram or  tuk tuk… and of course this is also cheaper on the wallet. The only caveat when traveling with kids is if you re taking an overcrowded vehicle (bus/ rickshaw/ train) – this can be claustrophobic for children – in this case, ensure your child has enough breathing & movement space, else not worth the ride.

An auto rickshaw in Dhaka, Bangladesh - manouvered thru traffic to swiftly get me to my hotel (as an Indian from Mumbai, I am so used to these!)

The Himachal State Transport Bus we took from Pathankot to Dalhousie in North India - very good condition, very clean, great people!
The less fancy but loads of fun boat ride on an Abra - from Deira to Bur Dubai in Dubai

5.       Visit a Local Park

Head out to a completely non touristy (and usually residential) area of the town you are in and visit a park where local children play at a playpen and people take their evening stroll. Especially when traveling with kids.. Kids enjoy their time at the park (in any new place – a slide or swing is still as much fun!). And while your kids mix around with local kids in the play area, you can take a quiet break and watch on from a park bench while catching up with other parents. Of course there are some things that you do back home that you will still end up doing here – being a referee between your kids and others on who will use the swing first :-)

At the play-area of a local park in Sharjah

At Uskudar, Istanbul - my daughter on a see-saw playing with Turkish kids at the local park

Share your ideas & comments on how you get a local experience when you travel...